Buddhist temples offer opportunities for introspection, self-discovery and communing with nature.
In South Korea, temple stays are a flourishing cottage industry. The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) bills the temple stay as a unique cultural program that lets foreigners and domestic travelers experience the life of Buddhist practitioners, a lifestyle that preserves the 1,700-year history of Korean Buddhism. Visitors are welcome for full-day, overnight and extended stays.
A comprehensive list, in English, of Korean temple stays appears on the Templestay website. With its extensive descriptions and its direct-booking option, this site is the most efficient way to research potential temples and book visits for clients.
Although the goals of the temple stay are the same, each temple has its unique character. Here are some examples:
• Seonunsa Temple, on the slopes of Mount Dosolsan near the Yellow Sea, dates to the sixth century. The temple is known for its worship of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and for its annual camellia festival. Through the practice of dado (tea ceremony) at Seonunsa, it is said that one can find true stillness and tranquility in a cup of tea.
• Myogaksa Temple is situated in the foothills of Naksan Mountain with a view of Seoul, so visitors can get a taste of traditional temple life and still have access to the nation's capital. Founded in 1930, Myogaksa runs an overnight program and a daylong temple cultural program called Laying Down My Mind.
• Haeinsa Temple in South Gyeongsang Province offers a program called Live Like the Wind and Water, then Leave Your Body! featuring monastic formal meals and Seon meditation sessions.
In its literature it explains: "The true appearance of the world can't be seen through the delusions and dreams that cloud the mind. When these dreams and illusions come to a stop, then the true face of the world can be seen for the first time. In a similar way, nothing can be reflected in water that is agitated, but everything is reflected, just as it is, in water that is still."
• Woljeongsa, located two hours from Seoul on Mount Odaesan, is best known for its octagonal, nine-story stone pagoda in front of its Jeokgwangjeon (Hall of Stillness and Light).
• Golgulsa Temple on Hamwol Mountain, near the historical city of Gyeongju, is perhaps the best choice for martial arts enthusiasts. Meditative qi gong movements are said to cultivate an awareness of internal energies while leading practitioners to a greater sensitivity to external energies.
Several South Korean tour operators offer packages that incorporate temple stays.
Aju Tours has a two-week, inclusive Korean Buddhism and Temple Tour with an English guide.
Highlights include temple food for lunch and a Yeongsanjae ritual at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul; a full-day visit to Mount Seorak National Park, including Gwongeumseong Fortress; an overnight at Naksansa Temple, which includes a tea ceremony, a temple dinner and an early morning worship service; and a visit to Andong, the home of Korean Confucianism.
A full-day tour of Gyeongju includes Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto and Royal Tumuli Park, while a tour of Busan takes in the Beomeosa Temple and the city's famous fish market.
From Mount Jiri National Park, the tour visits nearby Cheonghakdong Village, Hwaomsa Temple, Songgwangsa Temple, Nakan Folk Village, the beautiful Boseong Tea Terraces and Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.
Aju Tours works with U.S. travel agents on a net deal basis, leaving agents to determine their own markup.
A temple stay gives participants the opportunity to "search for their true selves" and get in contact with their original nature by allowing them to clear the mind.
I have overnighted at some of the temples mentioned above and can vouch for the meditative benefits of the temple stay and martial arts experiences. While walking along a peaceful forest path and living in the moment, I have found, I can listen to my inner voice. Multiple prostrations in the wee hours of a morning help one harness inner desires and let go of attachments.
For some, this reconnection can serve as a positive turning point for returning to "the real world." For others, just spending a few days in peaceful surroundings away from cellphones and day-to-day issues can be priceless.